Live Music + Gig Reviews

Radiohead @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

25 May 2003

RadioheadJudging by their behaviour it was clear that the 2,500-strong audience had come to this gig with high expectations. Tickets which were only available through Radiohead’s website had sold out within hours and subsequently changed hands for large sums on Ebay. An unfinished copy of their forthcoming album Hail to the Thief was leaked, much to their annoyance, onto the web. This was the last night of their small venue UK tour and they were definitely playing to the faithful.

Unsupported, they arrived on stage without ceremony looking focused but relaxed and went straight into their new single There There. A slow build-up, with guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien both pounding away on the tom-toms, gave way to Thom Yorke’s unmistakable voice. It filled the theatre with what sounded like a plea: “In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape / broken branches trip me as I speak / just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” Greenwood swapped drums for guitar and it swayed its way into a powerful rock guitar crescendo.

After the bleeps and bloops of the last two albums, the first track from new album Hail To The Thief, 2+2=5, harks back to early Radiohead. It’s simple, lively guitar band stuff, immediately engaging and possessed of a vibrant energy. As did all their new, less familiar tracks.

Jonny Greenwood picked up an old transistor radio and twiddled the dial – the crowd erupted at the trademark gesture that signals the opening of The National Anthem. At one point towards the end of that song, accompanied by all sorts of hypnotic effects and feedback, Thom Yorke gripped the microphone, swaying his head from side to side releasing an indecipherable tune, I sat mesmerised and muttered out loud: “How the hell do they do that?” The sound was extraordinary.

As usual Radiohead’s technical standards were outstanding. The output was raw, powerful and very clear. They appeared to have brought at least half their recording studio with them. Compressors, delays, frequency modulators, analogue synthesisers and other unidentifiable gear which meant lots of little flashing green and red lights across the stage. The guitarists were flanked by rows of pedals.

Then we go further back, to the delight of the audience, into OK Computer territory with Lucky, with Greenwood’s guitar and Yorke’s voice hitting all the notes.

A Punch-Up At A Wedding, another new track, had a heavy melodic feel to it. Again it sounded so much better live. Jonny Greenwood, bent over his guitar with his fringe hanging down, did God knows what exactly with pedals to produce mind-blowing effects.

Then Kid A – this time it was just happy and playful without a trace of that slightly disturbed feel to it. Myxomatosis, with its mean synth pulsing throughout, made Yorke convulse like a frenzied puppet. “My thoughts are misguided and a little nave / I twitch and I salivate like with myxomatosis / you should put me in a home or you should put me down.”

More impressive Hail to the Thief material followed with Sail to the Moon. Yorke on piano and a full dose of that haunting voice made a particular impression. Sit Down, Stand Up, with its furious techno finish and crazy effects, was followed by the melancholic, despairing No Surprises. I was still expecting such songs to be somehow compromised by a live performance, as though it would be too technically demanding to produce the finished article on stage, but I was proved wrong every time.

Second encore and a few ‘political’ references were thrown in. “The weapons of mass destruction don’t exist. they were doing it for the wrong reasons””the rise of the Right across America and Europe.” The Gloaming came along, all hypnotic heavy bass and with the troubling refrain: “Murderers, you’re murderers / we are not the same as you your alarm bells, your alarm bells / they should be ringingthis is the gloaming.” Yorke went off into another one of his frantic but convincing dance routines.

For the third and final encore Yorke returned alone with acoustic guitar and closed the set with a touching performance of True Love Waits – a sad but triumphant number. He breaks off grinning: “What’s the first lineOh fuck! What is it?” and then heads off into the audience to find out…

It’s difficult not to sound a little over the top when reviewing one of your favourite bands, playing 24 tracks exceptionally well in a small venue. But this really was Radiohead on top form.

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